Cutting the Red Tape

Chief Minister Sindh - Syed Murad Ali Shah opens up on his lighter side & year in office

  • 22 Jul - 28 Jul, 2017
  • Muhammad Rahat Hussain
  • Cover Story

The Pakistan Peoples Party projects two kinds of images: Sindhi nationalism and progressive technocracy, and the incumbent chief minister of Sindh is the perfect mixture of both. A soft-spoken engineer and economics graduate, Syed Murad Ali Shah does not cut the figure of a typical politician, let alone a personality representing the status quo. He is more of a corporate executive – less words, more action, tasked with a challenging set of responsibilities. He is against the protocol culture, takes pride in being an early riser, and knows how to tackle the lethargy in the corridors of bureaucracy with his upbeat energy to work. Excerpts of a candid chat with MAG.

The Chief Minister House is an old structure, with contemporary touches. From the outside, it is like any other government building, but upon entering, marbled floors, teak wood panelling and luxe furniture will greet you. Black and white portraits of past chief ministers line the corridor that leads up to the meeting room, where a big oil-on-canvas portrait of Benazir Bhutto adorns the wall. Look around all four sides and you can tell the place itself has pledged loyalty to the PPP.

It is 2:55 pm, and the interview is scheduled for 3:00. Without too much anticipation, I look around, hoping to spend at least the next half hour admiring the beauty of the artwork on the walls, under the assumption that Shah sahib wouldn’t show up on time but to my utter surprise he bustles in exactly one minute prior to 3:00. Time is money. He has a dignified presence to himself, even though he isn’t flamboyant in nature, there is suave in his walk. Wearing a pinstriped black suit, and silver tie, the thick side-parting glistens as he settles down to answer my questions.

“How do you begin your day?” I ask.

“I’m an early riser, I usually start around 9, meetings normally start by 10, before that if there is anything that I need to discuss with my personal staff, I try and get that sorted,” he says, adding he doesn’t like staying in the Chief Minister House, and prefers to have meetings at the Sindh Secretariat.

“Most of the time I’m here, which I do not like; I’d rather conduct business at the Secretariat, where I have another office,” he tells me.

“I used to do that a lot during my earlier months, but then with time, one gets bogged down by things, so since the last few months I’ve been holding my meetings here.”

During one of his first few days in office, he left the Chief Minister House for a meeting at the Sindh Secretariat without any security detail, on his own, driving his personal car. Why? Because everyone was too late and he was spot on time.

Since morning, he has winded up meetings with the Chinese Consul General on matter of CPEC security, followed by meetings with MPAs.

“I try and set some time for them because I try to listen to the issues of their constituencies, so I met with four MPAs,” he shares.

“If I have to step out for any visits, I usually do that in the morning, or on weekends, to cover more area and not disturb the people,” he says adding that he has cut down the security protocol by one-third, and if he could, he would get rid of it all.

His work ethics are influenced by his foreign education and years of work experience under his belt in countries abroad.

Born on August 11, 1962, he studied from St. Patrick’s School in Karachi, did his Intermediate from DJ Science College and then pursued civil engineering from NED University. A position holder from NED, he then went on to pursue masters in structural engineering from Stanford University in the US, later completing a second masters in economics from the same college.

“I have worked in London for Citibank, in USA, Canada, and also in the Middle East, particularly Kuwait,” he shares. And he never wanted to pursue active politics despite his background. However fate had something else in store for him. He first contested elections in 2002, on a provincial ticket from PS-73 Jamshoro-Dadu, and has since been a regular member in the Sindh Assembly. He held portfolios of ministries of finance and irrigation, before assuming the role of provincial chief executive last year.

“I think I’m the only person in the country, who has been a minister for the last nine years, continuously.”

He is a simple man at heart, without any taste for grandeur. He has no specific cuisine favourites, and would eat whatever he gets, although he admits he needs to be cautious about his diet.

“One thing my father used to tell me is that my eating habits are very bad. I don’t eat enough vegetables, and same is the case with my family; they are always after me trying to make sure I eat healthy and exercise. I do get these pangs every few months that I should work out, but I have not been very regular,” he states, quickly adding, “I’m conscious about my health, but despite being conscious, I eat whatever I get.”

On the personal side Shah has a small family. He married his cousin and has a daughter and a son.

“My daughter is studying in University of California, Davis and my son is here in Karachi with me,” he shares. He is a proud father, always ready to mentor his kids, even though his wife usually takes care of most of these things.

“If my daughter wants to get any advice from me, I’m always available,” he expresses.

“She was born in Karachi, but then she’s been all over the world. After she was born, I moved to London as I was working for Citibank at that time, from London I went to Kuwait, so she started her schooling from Kuwait, from there I moved to US, worked there for a couple of years before moving to Canada, and then eventually to Karachi. So she has adjusted to different cultures and education systems, and done well for herself.”

Does she want to pursue political science?

“Actually her majors are neurobiology, and she has political science and history as minors,” he discloses.

His frequent travels due to work has made him adaptable, and he doesn’t miss the lifestyle he had. As a personality, he says he is both an introvert and an extrovert.

“I would say I’m both,” he quips when I put the question.

“I get my introvert phases, but once I get involved in something, I’m more of an extrovert,” he reveals, recalling that even when he was a provincial minister, he used to avoid the media, and never came in the limelight.

“I’m not shy of media. Right now if I see a camera or a mic, I wouldn’t avoid it, and answer a question if I’m asked one.”

Although he has been active in parliamentary politics, Shah was never a debater in his school days, and acknowledges he is not very comfortable speaking in public.

“I’ll admit to you, in public gatherings, I’m not a very good speaker. In parliament, I’m okay, I’m comfortable, but in public I’m not,” he admits, adding he did take public speaking classes in school and university.

When he became the chief minister, a lot of videos surfaced on social media, with him actively going to places, although one does not see that that much nowadays, he still visits development sites, at times discreetly.

“I still do it. I just try not to take the media along with me or not inform them, and my media people always have a problem with that because they say you don’t even inform us about your visits. It’s less on the media, because I get criticised that I’m just doing it for getting in the media, so I don’t want that criticism for nothing.”

His desk is laden with bundles of files and paperwork, but a MacBook is perched atop.

“I am an Apple person,” he says when my eyes wander off towards his desk. “These days the gadgets have overtaken me because there are so many things that are coming out, but I always have the latest model of the laptop in terms of computers,” he lets in.

“Before I went to the US, Apple’s products were not available in Pakistan. When I went to the US, the Macintosh had just been unveiled, so you can imagine the attraction. Later on I shifted back to PCs, but when Apple came back with their new line of products, and when Steve Jobs rejoined Apple, I switched back, and now I can’t even work on PCs anymore,” he says.

The stress of the job takes a toll on one’s health as well, but Shah is yet to take a vacation. He has the propensity for extensive travelling but since the last year, he barely got the chance for a vacation.

“I have not taken a vacation so far, in fact I was thinking about it this morning,” he smiles. “I want to take a vacation, and I hope I get permission for a week or so.”

When I ask where he would like to visit, he says, “I don’t want to think about it now and feel disappointed later, but US is a natural place for me to go, because my sister and brother live there, however a week there would be too short, so I’d probably go to Europe.”

He says he has seen most of Europe and does not like to spend time in metropolitan cities, therefore the next trip would be to a quieter place where he can unwind and relax.

Sharing an anecdote, he says, “I was once travelling with Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto, from San Francisco to London back in 2001, and I told her I travel too much, to which she said ‘no you don’t as much as I do’. So I showed her my passport and I had a 100 page passport that was barely one-and-a-half years old and all the pages were stamped and used, and she did admit that I was a voracious traveller.

“I miss that kind of travelling, though I’m older now, I don’t think I’d be able to keep up with that kind of travelling, but once I retire from politics, I’d take some time out and travel again,” Shah shares his long-term post-retirement plans.

Although fond of watching Hollywood films, he says he no longer gets the time. “I used to like watching Hollywood films, and I’ve even watched Bollywood, but I no longer get the time and it’s not since I became the CM, I think over the years one just gets busy with too many things.”

After a long day he just prefers to sit in front of the TV, flip channels, till he goes to sleep.

“For some reason I just can’t focus. It was much better when we had three or four channels, you could focus on things, but now with about 400 channels it’s become difficult,” he laughs.

Shah reminisces how much he used to read in his childhood days.

“I used to read a lot, in fact I always slept with a book, but then again this habit has gone down since the last 20 years,” he recalls.

“I guess one gets so busy that one barely gets the time, but yes, I mostly read fiction.”

“From the Hardy Boys and Agatha Christie to Mario Puzo and even Sidney Sheldon, I’ve read contemporary fiction up to the 80s,” he tells, when I probe him about his taste for fiction.

“So did you read Lord of the Rings?” I pose.

“No, but I’ve read Harry Potter, I read it to my daughter, when she was young,” he smiles, adding “not all seven books, because then she grew up and could read them on her own, but I’ve watched all the eight movies, and I absolutely enjoyed it.”

Apart from books, Shah was also a lot in sports and still is. “I, at times get off the car and play cricket with the kids in the streets when I get the chance,” he laughs.

He recalls how sporty he was back in his youth. “I was heavily into sports – during my school and college days, I played cricket, hockey, football, table tennis, squash, you name it. Although I’m not good in any one these games, I was average, but I used to make it to the teams.”

“When I went to NED, there were worst players than me, so I became the star!” he quips.

As July ends, Shah will complete one year as the provincial chief executive. Last year when he flew down to Dubai for a meeting with the party leadership little did he know that he was going to be entrusted with his most daunting challenge yet: carrying his father, Syed Abdullah Ali Shah’s legacy, who served as the chief minister of Sindh from 1993 to 1996.

As the incumbent chief minister, he has shown bravado in reinvigorating the bureaucracy and polishing the image of the party, but more needs to be done – a fact he is cognizant of. It is an uphill task, and he for sure knows that, whether its law and order, education, health or infrastructure development.

“When I became the chief minister, the very first speech I made even before I took oath was that I need to have an emergency in both education and health. After that I had meetings with the education department. We know the issues, but unfortunately we have not been very successful for the one year that I have been in office,” he says, adding that he did cut the red tape and gave autonomy to both health and education departments, allowing the ministers to take decisions on his behalf and to inform him later.

“I could always overrule if there was anything I had an objection with, but the decision was to make things swift, and there have been some major improvements in the education sector,” he points out.

“Up to 70 per cent of closed schools were reopened, without any new hiring, by simply readjusting the human capital that we had,” he reveals. “We moved some resource to the schools that had larger enrolments, from schools that had lower enrolments and more teachers.” Running a province is no mean feat especially if there isn’t an abundance of skilled resource. This has been one of the issues Shah has faced – lack of experienced people.

“We’ve got a dearth of human capital. Doctors for instance, I’m still trying to recruit doctors and I’ve not been able to do so. There are more than 6,000 vacant positions of doctors in the province, which we have been trying to hire in the last three years,” he outlines the administrative hurdles he is facing.

When I ask why isn’t a quota system implemented, as majority of the medical graduates are females, who do not integrate into the workforce due to the social fabric of our society, he states, “There are a certain number of seats for both male and female medical officers. In the public service commission test, the females had passed in greater numbers than their male counterparts had. I told them I needed to hire every female doctor who had passed, because for the new facilities that we are creating, we’ll be needing another 6,000 doctors in no time.

“So I increased the number of female seats. The commission had reservations and they told me I’d have to increase the number of male seats too, which I willingly did, even though I knew I couldn’t hire any because there aren’t enough doctors available in the first place. So I try to come up with such solutions to address the dearth of human capital in the province.”

Coming from a corporate background, he has also tried to streamline certain processes on the administrative side of governance.

“Overall there is certain lethargy in the system; it probably was always there, and over the years it’s gotten worse. So one of the things I did was to get them to work on time. There was a general trend that people wouldn’t show up to work until 11 am.”

In his initial days, he used to go out and sit at the Secretariat office because he had to set an example.

“I know if I’m early, everyone else will be early too, and I’m trying to continue to do that.”

As we wind up our chat, I ask him about his future plans. He is certain he will contest another election.

“I’m 55 right now, I’ll contest the next polls, and by that term ends I’ll be past 60, so I will probably retire after that,” he shares. He has spent almost a decade in a provincial role, as the country braces for elections next year, is there a chance he could take on a more national role from the party.

“It all depends upon my party’s leadership,” he asserts. Shah is not too ambitious about his future role in politics. He is seemingly more dedicated to the task at hand – deliver as the Chief Minister of Sindh. Which he has successfully done in the last one year.

Photography: Rohail Khalid